01 Dec

Moses and the American Constitution

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Moses and the American Constitution

If Texas wants biblical characters and states’ rights in textbooks, publishers are happy to deliver.


Last week, the Texas State Board of Education held its final public hearing on new social studies textbooks being adopted for use in the state’s schools over the next decade. Despite being deep in the heart of Texas, some right-wing activists testifying at the hearing appeared to believe we were actually trapped somewhere between Syria and Iraq. Our children are under threat of Islamic indoctrination in schools! Sharia! Jihad! Intifada! The tense negotiations among activists, Texas politicians, and textbook publishers will influence what children in Texas, and around the country, will be taught about issues from Islam to Moses to climate change.

Roy White, chairman of the right-wing group Truth in Texas Textbooks, testified that the draft textbooks contained selective disinformation that was “pro-Islamic and anti-Christian.” White was furious about a passage in a Cengage textbook that read: “Muslims spread their religion by conquest, through trade, and through missionary work.” White claimed that Muslims who followed Muhammad’s example would only “attack or kill” non-Muslims. He said that violence as the overwhelming method of conversion had continued on from Muhammad’s time to today, when terrorist groups “under the Islamic umbrella of some multisyllable name” are messengers for Islam.

State Board of Education member Tincy Miller called White “a great patriot,” but the books’ treatment of Islam remained the same.

Turns out it’s actually pretty common for people to mistake Texas as the next target for incorporation into ISIS’s caliphate. Texas’ standardized curriculum was discarded last year in part because of accusations that it was pro-Islam and because in one school, during one lesson on Islam, a few students wore burqas. The incoming Texas lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, ran a television ad about how ISIS was infiltrating Texas’ borders.

Truth in Texas Textbooks submitted a 469-page document of its complaints to the board of education. One complaint was against a Pearson textbook that showed Sam Houston in a “dress.” TTT was concerned by the “subtle message this imagery is conveying to impressionable 7th grade students.” (Pearson responded that the “dress” was “Cherokee garb from the time during which (Houston) lived with the Cherokee.”)

TTT was also opposed to the “anti-American bias/subliminal messages” in a question about the Mexican-American War that made “the U.S. out to be the ‘bad guy’ and Mexico to be the ‘good guy.’”

But as Jose Maria Herrera, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, pointed out, the war was “an event in which it is difficult to paint the United States in a positive light.” He was disappointed by the “scant treatment” of the Mexican-American War in Pearson’s and other textbooks. Rather than seeing subliminal messages, Herrera said the books engaged in a “deliberate attempt to avoid confronting a problematic era in American history.” Still, discussing the Mexican-American War at all is an improvement. In April, when the state board was considering a course on Mexican-American history, board member David Bradley, according to the Associated Press, “called the course ‘reverse racism’ and threatened ‘to pull a Cesar Chavez and boycott.’ ” Bradley then boycotted public testimony about the course.

“We have the best, most pro-American standards of any state in the U.S.”

Climate change was another issue that conservatives were worked up about. McGraw-Hill’s World Geography and Cultures textbook originally gave credence to both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a Nobel Prize­­–winning science organization, and the Heartland Institute, a science-denying think tank. The book stated erroneously that many climate scientists disagree with the fact that greenhouse gases are causing our climate to change.

After public outcry, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and other publishers that had made similar errors about climate change corrected them. That upset conservatives. MerryLynn Gerstenschlager, vice president of the right-wing Texas Eagle Forum, testified that climate change was a United Nations plot “about the redistribution of wealth.” Board member Pat Hardy wanted both sides of the “global climate thing” to be taught.

Texas’ official state history education standards place sectionalism and states’ rights ahead of slavery as the causes of the Civil War. The textbooks under consideration reflected these standards. While slavery is covered in Pearson’s book and others, it also includes lines like, “For many southerners, secession was an issue of states’ rights and sovereignty.”

Caleb McDaniel, a Civil War historian at Rice University, told me that “It’s misleading to say slavery was just one of several causes of the Civil War because every other causal factor was tied to slavery.” Pearson kept its section on states’ rights the same.

A McGraw-Hill textbook originally dramatically understated the disadvantages black students faced during segregation. Originally, the passage said, “Under segregation, all-white and all-African American schools sometimes had similar buildings, buses, and teachers. Sometimes, however, the buildings, buses, and teachers for the all-black schools were lower in quality.”

McGraw-Hill subsequently apologized for its earlier phrasing and amended the section to say, “Under segregation, the facilities of the African American schools were almost always significantly lower in quality.”

Free market economics was another point of contention. One testifier, Barbara Wilson, complained that Pearson attributed the cause of the Great Depression to income inequality rather than the Federal Reserve System’s monetary policy, so Chairwoman Barbara Cargill suggested that the Pearson representative in the audience meet with Wilson and change its textbooks.

Pearson immediately edited its section about the Great Depression, including changing the answer to the question “Which of the following helped cause the Great Depression?” The answer was originally: “The uneven spread of wealth in the 1920s.” It was changed to: “The Federal Reserve’s monetary policy decisions.”

Another speaker, Anthony Bruner, accused the textbooks and the state education standards of sneaking “communist goals” into the classroom. This upset board member Hardy, who asserted, “we have the best, most pro-American standards of any state in the U.S.”

All of the textbooks from publisher Worldview were removed from the list of approved books by board members, partly in response to unsubstantiated claims that the books showed “bias against the United States.” One speaker accused Worldview of subversiveness for “slandering Douglas MacArthur by calling him a racist,” “omitting President Ronald Reagan’s accomplishments,” and “glorifying all people and things communist.” None of these claims were true, but Worldview’s books were still removed.

Texas history standards call for teaching about the influence of Moses and biblical law on America’s founding documents. Textbooks followed these standards. Perfection Learning’s Basic Principles of American Government said Moses contributed the idea that “a nation needs a written code of behavior” to the American government. It also recommends the Book of Exodus to students for further reading, an endorsement of religion. Other publishers, including Pearson and McGraw-Hill, in their attempts to meet Texas’ standards had sections on Moses’ contributions to the American Constitution.

I testified about the major violations of separation of church and state in these textbooks, but all of these endorsements of religion remain in books that have been adopted for teaching history in Texas public schools.

Sections on Harvey Milk (which originally erroneously called him the first openly gay elected official), Sikhism, and Hinduism were corrected. (Books no longer say that Sikhism is a subset of Hinduism or that all Hindus are vegetarians.) But on the whole, the revisions to Texas textbooks have been a mixed bag, especially because some of our history textbooks contain material that isn’t history.

These problems aren’t just Texas’ problems. Because Texas is such a large purchaser of textbooks, publishers shape their books to meet Texas’ standards and sell them all around the country. School districts in New York or California can teach their kids all about Moses now, too.

Zack Kopplin is a science education activist who has fought against creationism being taught with public money.




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